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North Macedonia, Greece to hold 2nd intergovernmental session by year’s end, Zaev tells MIA

Shortly before departing for Skopje, PM Zaev sat down with MIA's Athens correspondent for an interview, in which he reveals more details about his meetings with Greece's top officials. 

Athens, 17 September 2020 (MIA) – Depending on the COVID-19 pandemic, it is likely that in winter North Macedonia and Greece will hold the second intergovernmental session.

Next steps in the Macedonian-Greek relations include signing of the double taxation avoidance agreement, talks of the chambers of commerce from the two countries on trademarks, cooperation in an array of areas, including economy, energy, investments, etc. They were discussed yesterday at the meeting of the prime ministers of the two countries, North Macedonia PM Zoran Zaev reveals in an interview with MIA.

His participation in the Athens conference, organized by The Economist on Sept. 15-16, allowed Zaev to have meetings with both Greek state officials and Greek businessmen.

Shortly before departing for Skopje, PM Zaev sat down with MIA’s Athens correspondent for an interview, in which he reveals more details about his meetings with Greece’s top officials.

He says Greek PM Kyriakos Mitsotakis wants to come to Skopje and reveals that he has said that Greece is willing to provide the COVID-19 vaccine once it is available for North Macedonia and Albania.

Zaev also comments on whether the experience with Greece could serve as an example for the country’s relations with Bulgaria.

Prime Minister, you have had a dynamic two-day visit to Athens, including a slew of meetings, participation in The Economist conference. There, at a panel, you said we should show the world that every agreement and every friendship produces benefits for the citizens. You met with your Greek counterpart, with the Greek President and also with the leader of the opposition leader SYRIZA, who I believe is already your personal friend. Let’s start with the Mitsotakis meeting – what was his message to you and what was your message to him?

Firstly, I would like to share this with our citizens – this is the objective of the agreements being fulfilled. Today I’m here, a Macedonian prime minister in Athens, for the first time probably in 20 years. We discussed business, the economy, cooperation, investments, new jobs, growth of the GDP in our country, export, new technologies – an experience acquired in these European countries that are our neighbors, including Greece.

I can freely say that this has been affirmed, not only through the businessmen we met, but also with the leaders of Greece. It was the President who voiced some serious encouragements, but, to be precise, the question was about PM Mitsotakis.

The first thing we agreed was an intergovernmental session in the winter – let’s hope by the end of the year depending on the COVID situation. It will be the second one between the governments. The first session was organized in Skopje with the former administration led by (Alexis) Tsipras. The second one will be organized in Athens and by then we should sign an agreement on double taxation avoidance. It opens a large front for Greek investments and multinational companies with Greek origin.

I consider this a great achievement, because of what we have agreed today, having in mind that in our country we have flat tax 10+10 – here taxes are 50% to 60%. With how things stand in the economy, many investments will spill over in North Macedonia. This has been confirmed by all businessmen from many sectors, including energy, agriculture, light industry, tourism, etc. There’s huge interest. The friendship itself has created this atmosphere.

Let’s not forget, Greece has been North Macedonia’s second biggest trade partner that is also ranked third as investor. However, only 30%-40% of the potentials have been exhausted so far. Now, we are opening some direct opportunities, through the double taxation avoidance agreement, investment protection agreement, and all other economic agreements we have never had with our neighbor. In such circumstances, I believe we are enabling an inflow of foreign capital in North Macedonia. I consider it to be a new domestic production, new jobs, new export of good produced here.

Also, we have done a good job acquiring experiences from digital economy. In the past 5-6 months, Greece has achieved a perfection of digitization implementation. It’s key, not only because of the coronacrisis, which is likely to last in the next six to eight months, but also because it’s the modernization for the 21st century.

They have offered to do a research. They already have investments, such as Cisco and other companies operating in the Silicon Valley. They are here and would like to expand in the Balkan Peninsula and also across Southeast Europe.

In a friendly atmosphere, we discussed how to show everyone what it means two friendly countries to have a strategic partnership agreement. The Prespa Agreement didn’t only solve the name issue and strengthened our Macedonian identity. A majority of the Prespa Agreement is dedicated to strategic partnership, including air policing, security, economy, energy, education, healthcare, etc.

Even though we are here after being invited by The Economist, the two meetings we had with the PM and the ministers and the encouraging messages of the Greek President – they to me are a wish come true to use this potential of the southern neighbor, the country that is the oldest member of the EU, and the oldest one in NATO from the whole region. It has created a strong lobby everywhere in the world, numerous companies – strong and multinational – and a country that registers billions in turnover. All of this is a great opportunity for economic growth and development of the Republic of North Macedonia.

In a few months you will visit Athens again, but have you discussed the possibility of Mitsotakis visiting Skopje?

We’ve discussed several topics on the matter. It will be preceded by a visit paid by the Greek chambers of commerce from Athens and Thessaloniki to Skopje, where their officials will meet with the government, with our chambers of commerce to brainstorm ideas on how to solve trademarks, for which we all agree that we need to be smart.

Looking at the world, we are indeed a small region. It’s an important region, a market of 30 million inhabitants. We should be smart, to cleverly use the origin of the region so as to have brand new regional brands while also protecting national aspects and maintaining mutual respect. It can provide us with the chance to promote ourselves on global markets, to increase the overall offer, because some of our products are very competitive but small. If we join forces, we can conquer whole markets.

It will be followed by G2G session and PM Mitsotakis wants to visit Skopje. He wants to see what it looks like since 1999-2000, when he was in charge of the acquisition of Stopanska Banka-Skopje, appointed by the National Bank of Greece. He has some fond memories from that period. He hasn’t visited since. He wants to visit Skopje, to have meetings and to visit Stopanska Banka. He asked about the bank and we told him it is one of the best banks in the country and one of the largest ones in North Macedonia.

Also, our ministers of health are already cooperating. The foreign ministers have been having cooperation. Also, a direct link was established between our government and the Greek ministers for digital economy and information society.

We discussed ways to facilitate access to borders and crossing of borders to be more flexible. Thus, it gives me great pleasure that we have discussed these topics.

As you already know, Mr. Mitsotakis was against the Prespa Agreement, and it’s OK. However, he has a modern and European view – it’s deal done, a document verified by our assemblies and internationally recognized. So, let’s move forward and work with the agreement and the positive climate it has created.

Friendships produce benefits. As someone who participated in the signing of the Prespa Agreement, I was motivated by the thought of opening perspectives for the young, for our generations. It was really a pity that after 30 years of independence, our country doesn’t have an agreement on avoiding double taxation and protection of investments with the southern neighbor Greece, which is also the second biggest trade partner and the third biggest investor in North Macedonia.

I believe we’ll use these benefits in the interests of the Macedonian people, all the citizens in North Macedonia and I also believe the people of Greece will also feel the benefits.

Recently, Greek leaders – PM Mitsotakis as well – have been hinting at extending support for North Macedonia on its path to the EU. How can Athens help us?

I’ve been pleasantly surprised – at all European Council debates, in March after the negative decision in October (back then Mr. Mitsotakis was already PM), he’d spoken in support of North Macedonia and of course Albania, since Greece is their neighbor. He is one of the most dedicated advocates for the European future of North Macedonia. Let’s not forget the support of PM Borissov.

It is a pleasant feeling. Of the five neighbors, the two that are EU members are rooting for us.

Finally, in March we got the long-awaited decision.

Now, they are engaged in the completion of the negotiating framework and the organization of the first intergovernmental conference by the end of the year during Germany’s EU presidency. It literally marks the start of the negotiations and they fully support it. We are lucky that Germany is presiding over the EU presidency. Chancellor Merkel has been fully committed to this and I believe we’ll succeed.

Let’s not forget energy projects. A topic that was confirmed at the meeting with my counterpart Kyriakos Mitsotakis is that North Macedonia is ready join the Alexandroupolis project. Our participation should be determined, however, it’s fine if we have 2% or 20% participation, because to be part of a regional gasification project improves the country’s image. The project provides a slew of options for North Macedonia to provide gas.

Over 70% of the national gas pipeline has been completed. I believe we will finish in a year, year and a half. Our cities are supplied with gas and it’s nice to have options. It has been welcomed by large multinational companies. Also, the Greek government through the PM have embraced the idea.

All of this confirms we are conquering a modern territory of gasification of our country having provided gas and shares in the project.

You’ve mentioned that the health ministers of the two countries have had meetings. We are affected by the pandemic – how much it helps the cooperation of the countries in the region, although Greece has shut down its borders. How it affects the flow of people? For months, tourists are banned from vacationing in Greece.

There is both advantage and disadvantage. We have the advantage because we are a small region and everything is connected. When figures rise in one country, we see them also rising in another, even with the borders being closed. At the moment, the borders are indeed closed, but only for tourists, but they are open for business matters, however businessmen cannot travel to make deals. It can only be done in videoconferences. However, it’s not the same as when people can freely move.

But, we all agreed that public health is top priority. We’ve all adjusted to the new reality.

To allow Greek nationals to come to North Macedonia due to various reasons, be it medical, entertainment, business matters, etc, we have been establishing test terminals at the borders. New tests can produce results in 15-20 minutes’ time. I believe we’ll have them soon to meet the requirements of the World Health Organization.

We’re all adjusting and hoping that we’ll hear by the end of the year that a vaccine has undergone all clinical trials. Probably, we’ll have the option of several vaccines that will be available worldwide and in our country as well. We need this psychological effect of a vaccine having been discovered. It will move the economy forward.

Venko Filipche and the Greek minister of health have been talking and sharing information. Greece is a big country that is in the EU, it has access to information and they are willing to share it with us.

Today, the Greek PM said he is willing on behalf of Greece as EU member to provide the vaccine for North Macedonia and Albania, because the vaccine will be available first for the member countries before it is available for the candidate countries. To me, it is a show of friendship.

It is creating a positive atmosphere and I want our citizens, Macedonian, Albanians, etc, to recognize it as a future cooperation as a great potential.

You met with (Katerina) Sakellaropoulou, the first female president who assumed office six months ago. But, it’s interesting that we don’t know her position on the Prespa Agreement because as head of the Council of State she stuck to issues related to her former post. What did you discuss with her?

I was also pleasantly surprised. She is a lawyer who is President of Greece. She had positive remarks, she encouraged us after the Prespa Agreement to improve our cooperation. She extended messages of assistance and cooperation.

Of course, we conveyed greetings from President Pendarovski, from our Parliament and from the whole government. Those were greetings of friendship and cooperation. She welcomed them with courtesy. I hope soon the two heads of state will meet.

We discussed current developments. She believes in friendship through dialogue in the whole region. She believes we can all come out of this crisis stronger.

She commended recent diplomatic developments in the region, referring to the Prespa Agreement and also to the Kosovo-Serbia deal, probably.

It’s important that Greece wants to continue pursuing its leadership role in the region after hosting for the first time the Western Balkans summit in 2003. Greece is at the disposal to assist EU integration efforts. So , we had a positive meeting also with the President of Greece.

You’ve already mentioned that Mitsotakis, when he was the opposition leader, opposed the Prespa Agreement. But, now, he has been stating that it is an internationally ratified agreement and thus, Greece will abide by it. Hence, we can say that Alexander the Great won’t stand in our way to Brussels, but perhaps Goce Delchev will? Could the whole situation with Greece be a message or a lesson learned to one of our neighbors?

Our neighbors are also our friends, which was proven when they had to decide about the future, about North Macedonia’s strategic goals, NATO and the EU. They decided in their favor. They are politicians whose views adapt to the current developments. But, it doesn’t mean our friendship is any less significant.

Figuratively speaking, our cooperation with Greece is paved on the Friendship highway, it’s no longer Alexander the Great highway.

Goce Delchev is the highway linking Skopje and Shtip, but it is also our way toward Bulgaria.

I believe that together, we’ll all learn through the prism of building relations, how history unites us. Let us find more reasons to heighten our friendship and our cooperation.

History is very much important, but what’s more important is the future. In solving the Goce Delchev issue, we have to find links that unite us, common links to help us assist each other, encourage one another to trade goods, invest in our countries and have cooperation at every level.

I believe both sides will come out as winners through this issue. We’ll come to an agreement and it has to be sustainable, which is possible only if the two sides are equally happy, otherwise, it won’t be an agreement – one side imposed it on the other. We don’t need that.

Documents are kept in archives, we can open them. There are archives in the two countries and they are almost identical.

If we are smart, the joint commission would be able to draw a conclusion – all the five historical figures and how we commemorate them is the joint threat – be it Saints Cyril and Methodius, Saints Clement and Naum, Tsar Samuil; the same will apply for Goce Delchev.

We’d already commemorated him together, namely Boyko Borissov visited his grave in Skopje, I paid my respects at the monument in Blagoevgrad in 2018/18. Strumica’s largest monument is that of Goce Delchev. His monument has been erected all over Bulgaria. They also have a town named Goce Delchev. This is the truth.

What we are discussing here are developments that had taken place in late 19th century and early 20th century. He was our great revolutionary, an advocate for Macedonian independence. He also fought for social rights when our region was occupied by the Ottoman Empire.

We can be really smart and find a common thread that unites us all. No one should lose anything. Why? Because he is someone who had fought for rights and freedom. I believe that the wise politicians of the 21st century can find something in common to establish cooperation, find a way toward the future and prosperity.

Sanja Ristovska 

Translated by Bisera Altiparmakova

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